Critics: NJ must open offices for unemployment claims

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Harrison resident Kenneth Han got laid off April 16 and still hasn’t received any unemployment benefits. He wants New Jersey’s Department of Labor to open up its field offices to help process claims and eliminate a backlog of some 48,000 cases that its current system can’t seem to handle.

“Opening the offices is kind of a scary deal right now given the conditions, but Jersey’s on the uptick. Limit the amount of people in. Everyone wears masks,” Han said. “They’ve done such a horrible job. There’s no solution. It’s just, ‘Oh, call back tomorrow.'”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made the same plea to the state’s Department of Labor asking it to reopen for in-person assistance by appointment-only with social distancing and mandatory masks. All of the department’s field offices and one-stop career centers have remained closed during the pandemic. Signs direct claimants to call or email.

“There is no reason that I can see except they didn’t want to do it, to not come out and meet the public where they’re living and where they’re having the problems,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg.

The administration says many of the backlogged claims have complex issues. Former state labor commissioner and Assemblyman Hal Wirths says that’s precisely why it’s time to offer in-person help.

“The bottom line is the Department of Labor, DMV, everybody should be open,” Wirths said. “We should open up safely and start serving the constituents. Our legislative offices are open. It’s time to get government open. There are some people who can’t do these claims without help; they’re very complicated.”

Lawmakers say reopening Labor Department offices could be accomplished without the chaos that characterized the Motor Vehicle Commission’s messy restart. But Gov. Phil Murphy insists all of the unemployment claim functions can best be handled without in-person transactions.

“There’s really no difference in what an unemployment claimant can do in-person versus over the phone. So in terms of where our resources and manpower are, opening in person, actually, we believe would lead to less, not more, claimants being served,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s coronavirus news briefing.

“If it’s so efficient to be handled online, why do they have this backlog and why are there so many angry people out there?” asked Weinberg.

The department says it’s processed 96% of unemployment claims but 28,000 more first-time applications poured in last week, an 8.8% increase over the week before.

A spokesperson insists they’ve got it under control, saying, “[…] forefront in our minds are the health and safety of our customers and staff, in addition to the economic needs of our claimants.”

“You can go to the Motor Vehicle Commission, but you’re not allowed to vote in person or go to the Department of Labor and meet with a representative to have your unemployment claim properly processed. It shows the utter hypocrisy that is coming out of the Murphy administration and the failure of the Department of Labor,” Sen. Mike Testa said.

In fact, some desperate claimants with stalled cases are now asking attorneys, like Rachel London, to file appeals.

“A lot of people have been calling with delays and information they’ve gotten from unemployment where often we say, ‘That’s not correct,’ or ‘That’s not true, you certainly should be eligible under those facts and we will help you,'” London said.

Her firm, Wall & London, takes unemployment cases on a contingency basis.

As for Han, the department gave him an Aug. 11 appointment for another a phone call. But he’s hoping offices reopen so he can sit down and talk to someone in person.

“Having, you know, five people in an office to have 20 meetings a day for partial hours that are by appointment where you can’t just walk in? It’s like, you can do that,” he said.